The Fight For Internet Censorship

Thanks to Danielle and the CoOp crew for having me! I’m excited.

Speaking of exciting developments, it appears that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is dead, at least for now. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said that the bill will not move forward until there is a consensus position on it, which is to say, never. Media sources credit the Obama administration’s opposition to some of the more noxious parts of SOPA, such as its DNSSEC-killing filtering provisions, and also the tech community’s efforts to raise awareness. (Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has been working overtime in reporting on SOPA; Wikipedia and Reddit are adopting a blackout to draw attention; even the New York City techies are holding a demonstration in front of the offices of Senators Kirstin Gillibrand and Charles Schumer. Schumer has been bailing water on the SOPA front after one of his staffers told a local entrepreneur that the senator supports Internet censorship. Props for candor.) I think the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the bill is important, but I suspect that a crowded legislative calendar is also playing a significant role.

Of course, the PROTECT IP Act is still floating around the Senate. It’s less worse than SOPA, in the same way that Transformers 2 is less worse than Transformers 3. (You still might want to see what else Netflix has available.) And sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy has suggested that the DNS filtering provisions of the bill be studied – after the legislation is passed. It’s much more efficient, legislatively, to regulate first and then see if it will be effective. A more cynical view is that Senator Leahy’s move is a public relations tactic designed to undercut the opposition, but no one wants to say so to his face.

I am not opposed to Internet censorship in all situations, which means I am often lonely at tech-related events. But these bills have significant flaws. They threaten to badly weaken cybersecurity, an area that is purportedly a national priority (and has been for 15 years). They claim to address a major threat to IP rightsholders despite the complete lack of data that the threat is anything other than chimerical. They provide scant procedural protections for accused infringers, and confer extraordinary power on private rightsholders – power that will, inevitably, be abused. And they reflect a significant public choice imbalance in how IP and Internet policy is made in the United States.

Surprisingly, the Obama administration has it about right: we shouldn’t reject Internet censorship as a regulatory mechanism out of hand, but we should be wary of it. This isn’t the last stage of this debate – like Wesley in The Princess Bride, SOPA-like legislation is only mostly dead. (And, if you don’t like the Obama administration’s position today, just wait a day or two.)

Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions.

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